Stories “Worth Writing and Reading About”*: Thoughts of an Anabaptist Biographer

My little granddaughters love stories. A favourite is “Our Lives Together.” These excerpts from the reel-to-reel films that their great-grandfather Peter Dyck took on his movie camera, memorialize the work that he and his wife Elfrieda Klassen Dyck shared as Mennonite Central Committee volunteers in post-war England.1 Mennonite Central Committee has thrived during its one hundred-year history by virtue of such stories that North American workers have told about their experiences in the some sixty countries where they have served.

As Anabaptist historians, our mission is not so much to tell our own stories; we focus on people from the past. Biographers preserve the memory of individuals whose lives have the capacity to inspire.2 Although some do “quite explicitly” weave their “own lives into discussion of others,” the historical profession encourages us to keep a distance, to maintain objectivity.3 Historians tell the stories of individuals whose lives have made a difference in the public domain – leaders and institution builders, people who have left documents allowing their contributions to be tracked. Take for instance, GAMEO (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia On-line).4 Brief articles provide glimpses into the lives of hundreds of men and women who are deemed to have made significant contributions to the church. Carefully contained within the interpretative framework designed by GAMEO’s management team allows for what Leon Edel, well-known as the doyen of biography, has described as “a successful biography,” one that keeps the focus on public life and institutions.5 The GAMEO format allows the biographer to disengage and write the life of another with detachment.6

The traditional view has been challenged and expanded by what biographer Barbara Caine labels as a “new biography.” In contrast to Edel, with his formula for the “successful biography,” feminist methodology allows for questions that are “more personal and impressionistic.”7 Acknowledging that “potentially all lives are of interest and worth writing and reading about,” greater fluidity opens the way to consider the struggles that individuals have faced.8 This expanded biographical approach has demonstrated that “the extent to which one individual shares experiences and problems with others,” is often what makes a life worth remembering.9

Feminist theory and social historical methodology have shaped my own writing of biography. The permission that these disciplines allow to explore little known lives, “reading between the lines,” to use Betty Jane Wylie’s words, inspires my inner detective.10 In my life as a historian, I have found meaning in searching out and writing the lives of individuals, most previously virtually unknown.11

Take, for instance, my biographical work on Alice Snyder (1917 – 2000). Searching out the story of this long-time MCC worker began as I researched the history of MCC Ontario for what would be published as Transformation of a Century. Alice Snyder’s work in the MCC Ontario Cutting Room, with her mother Ida Snyder, turned out to be foundational to MCC’s work during World War II.12 After the war, Alice would take on the challenge of volunteering in post-construction Germany. Although Alice’s schooling had ended with grade eight, her letters home from Europe proved to be a historical document worth publishing.13

Scholars have noted the significant place that letter writing has played in nurturing family ties in times of separation.14 Alice’s letters had done exactly that. Perhaps “the secret bestower of possibility” that had eluded her in her own life, Alice’s mother Ida preserved her daughter’s letters from Germany in a small black binder.15 Alice’s letters home provide insights into what a young Waterloo County Mennonite woman, with a mere grade eight education, deemed worthy of preserving and sharing with her family from her work with MCC. With their ultimate destination in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, they also have bestowed possibility for later generations. Indeed, Alice’s letters inspired at least one of my research assistants on the letters project to do her own stint overseas in voluntary service.16

Griffen has noted the traditional wisdom “that every woman is her mother.” As much as her suggestion that “it may be that every woman of achievement is, in part, paying a debt to the past, bringing to fulfillment her mother’s dreams and potential,” reflects the mission of Ida and Alice Snyder, it resonates with the life and mission of Lucille Brechbill Lady (1910 – 1968).17 With her mental health challenges, Lucille Lady was remembered in the public record solely as a burden to her husband Jesse Lady, a prominent Brethren in Christ church leader.18 As I explored the hidden recesses of the historical record to bring her story to light, writing became a path to healing.19

In recent times biographers have become more open to exposing the personal challenges and difficulties of their subjects. With this biographical project, the burden of my great-aunt’s suicide that I felt as one carrying her name, miraculously, was lifted. Travels to California, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, places where she and her husband had lived and ministered, brought opportunities to interview people who had been close to her, some also still suffering from the aftermath of her suicide.

Out of these connections materialized documentary evidence, including family letters, her Bible, her wedding certificate, school yearbooks, and even a tape recording of her funeral.20 For the biographer, a fertile imagination is a strong asset.21 A decade of research, slowly put the pieces of the puzzle in place, creating a picture of a life well worth remembering – an intelligent, caring nurse, teacher and writer, a woman who was a devout Christian and church woman, a mystic, and a devoted wife, aunt, sister, sister-in-law, daughter and friend.22

Griffen’s notion of paying a debt to the past also speaks to my current biographical work on H. Frances Davidson.23 In the mid-1970s, when Morris Sider memorialized this icon well-known among Brethren in Christ and Mennonites, especially in Zambia and Zimbabwe where she lived out her long missionary career, I was a young woman seeking a script to follow.24 In feminist historian Gerda Lerner’s words, as women growing up in the post-war years we were still “denied the power to define, to share in creating the mental constructs that explain and order the world.”25 I was among those looking for role models, “an idealized maternal figure,” as Caine has put it.26

Now nearly fifty years later, my inner detective continues to delight in the search for past lives. This work is delicate.27 And yet, it is important work as we attempt to pay back some of the debt owed to our foremothers, women like H. Frances Davidson who struggled to find their way without scripts to follow. As Morris Sider has noted, subjects like Davidson who left ample documentary evidence are dear to the hearts of historians.28 The multiple primary documents that she left – her diaries, a travelogue, letters to family, photos, and writing for the Evangelical Visitor await further exploration.

H. Frances Davidson, whom biographer Morris Sider has identified as a “woman with great stores of energy … one of the most extraordinary and striking persons to have held membership” in the Brethren in Christ denomination,” has become a symbol for female leadership among the membership, both in North America and in Africa. She was also a woman with a rich inner life.29 With the tools of the social historian and feminist methodology, it is possible to ask and explore questions about her family, her education, the geographic and social context of her life and work. In addition, as other feminist scholars have observed, the exploration of women’s inner lives, their spirituality, is essential as we continue to create scripts to follow.30 In my role as Anabaptist historian I am anticipating many more challenges and joys as I continue to explore the reality and constraints of this nineteenth-century Brethren in Christ woman’s life.


* Barbara Caine. Biography and History (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, 2010), 71.

1 “Peter J. Dyck, Memorial Service,” https://www.commonword.ca/ResourceView/82/12983 Accessed February 4, 2021

2 On the moral benefits of biography, see Caine, Biography and History, 31.

3 Caine. Biography and History, 71.

4 GAMEO was created by Canadian Mennonite historians to preserve data collected in the mid-1980s by researcher Marlene Epp, (now Professor of History and Peace and Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo), originally intended for a third volume of her father Frank H. Epp’s history of Mennonites in Canada; Samuel J. Steiner, “Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (Website),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. June 2017. Web. 2 Feb 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Global_Anabaptist_Mennonite_Encyclopedia_Online_(Website)&oldid=164961

5 In Biography and History, 71-72, 88, Caine references Leon Edel. See, for instance, his Writing Lives: Principia Biographica (New York and London: Norton, 1984) and “Confessions of a Biographer,” in George Moraitis and George Pollack (ed), Psycholanalytic Studies of Biography (Madison, WI: International Universities Press, 1987): 3-29.

6 I have found it inspiring to prepare the following biographies for GAMEO: “Nighswander, Joseph Martin (1923-2006),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (March 2017) Web. 17 Apr 2017 http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Nighswander,_Joseph_Martin_(1923-2006)&oldid=147448; Sherk, J. Harold, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (July 2013) http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Sherk,_J._Harold_(1903-1974)&oldid=100074; “Nigh, Ross Edward (1917-2001),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (November 2012) Web (17 Apr 2017) http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Nigh,_Ross_Edward_(1917-2001)&oldid=95956; Snyder, Alice (1917-2000)” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (March 2011) Web. 04 November 2011. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/snyder_alice_1917_2000; “Taves, Harvey W. (1926-1965),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (July 2009) Web. 04 November 2011. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/taves_harvey_w._1926_1965.

7 Caine, Biography and History, 88-89; In Writing a Woman’s Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), Carolyn Heilbrun paved the way for feminist biographers with her call for a new interpretative framework.

8 Caine, Biography and History, 111.

9 Caine, Biography and History, 67.

10 Reading Between the Lines: The Diaries of Women (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1995); Caine, History and Biography, 111.

11 One of my recent posts on Anabaptist Historians illustrates. “Making meaning when the historical record is silent,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/11/07/making-meaning-when-the-historical-record-is-silent/ Accessed February 10, 2021. See also my biographies listed as follows: “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018): 115-54; “Conflict, Confession and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Mission,” Brethren in Christ History & Life XI, No. 3 (December 2017): 335-52; “Jane Drummond Redpath,” in Still Voices, Still Heard, Sermons, Addresses, Letters, and Reports The Presbyterian College, Montreal, 1865-2015, edited by J.S.S. Armour, Judith A. Kashul, William Klempa, Lucille Marr, and Dan Shute (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015); “Writing a Woman’s Life: Lucille Brechbill Lady, 1910 – 1968,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 33.1 (2010): 3-50; the author with Dora-Marie Goulet, “I guess I won’t be able to write everything I see …”: Alice Snyder’s Letters Home, 1948-1950 (Waterloo, ON: Pandora Press, 2009); “Ontario’s Conference of Historic Peace Church Families and the ‘Joy of Service’,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 19 (2001): 257-72; “Naming Valiant Women: Biographical Sketches of Three Women in the Canadian Methodist Tradition.” Consensus: A Canadian Lutheran Journal of Theology 20.2 (1994): 35-56; “If you want peace, prepare for peace”: Hanna Newcombe, Peace Researcher and Peace Activist.” Ontario History 84.4 (1992): 263-282.

12 Transforming Power of a Century: The evolution of Mennonite Central Committee in Ontario (Waterloo, ON: Pandora Press, 2003).

13 “I guess I won’t be able to write everything I see …”. As noted earlier, she also became the subject of a GAMEO article.

14 See for instance, Susan J. Rosowski, Birthing a Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American Literature (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 36.

15 On the role of mother as model, please see Heilbrun, Women’s lives: the view from the threshold (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 52-53; Gail B. Griffen, Emancipated Spirits: Portraits of Kalamazoo College Women (Kalamazoo, Michigan : Ihling Bros. Everard Co., 1983, 1990), xii.

16 See “A Biographical Sketch,” 11-21, in “I guess I won’t be able to write everything I see ….”

17 The photo’s source is “U.S., School Yearbooks, 1880-2012”; School Name: Beulah College; Year: 1949; Ancestry.com. U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Accessed 8 February 2021.

18 Samuel Lady, “Jesse F. Lady ‘A Loyal Churchman in a Time of Transition’,” Brethren in Christ History and Life (April 1995): 3-41.

19 Please see Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (Beacon Press, 2000).

20 Please see also the author, “Breaking the Silence on Suicide and Mental Illness: The Brethren in Christ, 1968-1989,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 29 (2011), 121-32.

21 Caine, History and Biography, 114-15.

22 The author, “Writing a Woman’s Life: Lucille Brechbill Lady.”

23 See, for instance,” Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the Writings of a Spiritual Mothers,” Anabaptist Historians, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/01/28/mysticism-and-evangelicalism-in-the-writings-of-a-spiritual-mother/ Accessed February 10, 2021; “Conflict, Confession and Conversion.”

24 “Hannah Frances Davidson,” in Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1978), 159 – 214; Sider, E. Morris. “Davidson, Hannah Frances (1860-1935).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1988. Web. 8 Feb 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Davidson,_Hannah_Frances_(1860-1935)&oldid=122476.

25 Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 207.

26 Caine, History and Biography, 72.

27 Biographers warn the would-be biographer about the pitfalls as one attempts to interpret the life of another. See, for instance, Sider, “Finding Vocation,” 15; Griffen, introduction to Emancipated Spirits, xi; and Caine, History and Biography, 72.

28 Sider, Nine Portraits, 9; See also his “Finding Vocation and Mission: Reflections on Writing Brethren in Christ History,” Brethren in Christ History and Life. Vol. XLIII, no. 1 (April 2020), 9; In an email exchange with the author, Sider encouraged further research on Davidson; Sider to Marr, 12 December 2012; see also Wylie, Reading Between the Lines, 224.

29 Sider, Nine Portraits, 159.

30 See for instance, Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993); Women’s Personal Narratives, edited by Leonore Hoffman and Margaret Culley (New York: Modern Language Arts of America, 1985); Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (New York: Norton & Company, 1996).

A Theology of Suffering: Suffering and Martyrdom in Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist Hymnody

Alec Loganbill

Whoever wants to have fellowship with [Christ]
and be a partaker of his kingdom
must also do like him
here on this earth.
Whoever would inherit with him
must have much pain here
for the sake of his name.1

The strong connection between suffering and salvation displayed in this Swiss Brethren Anabaptist hymn is underscored throughout sixteenth-century Anabaptist hymnody. Such a connection was inspired by Anabaptists’ developing theological beliefs and by their experiences of persecution and suffering in early modern Europe. The writing and singing of hymns were popular and powerful means of religious expression for early Anabaptists, whose music could be heard everywhere from worship spaces to prison cells to the burning stake. They wrote and sang hymns to declare their faith, memorialize their martyrs, and connect to other believers. As music historian Rosella Reimer Duerksen has observed, in the case of Anabaptists, “hymnodists practiced little restraint or sophistication, but presented their views and beliefs freely in the stanzas which they penned.” 2 Thus, their compositions offer an unadulterated look into the hearts and minds of lay people rather than the formal doctrine found in other confessional hymnals of the Reformation. The lack of any formal doctrine in Anabaptist hymnody is also reflective of the fact that, as historian John Rempel has noted, “little time was taken for doctrinal or liturgical formulation; what mattered was spiritual rebirth and a life of surrender.”3 This grassroots form of religious expression and experience emphasized passionate spirituality, concern for living a holy life, and, perhaps most strikingly, the powerful and effective motifs of suffering and martyrdom.4

Among the developing doctrinal and theological ideas with which Anabaptist hymnodists interacted, adult baptism appears as one of the most prominent, for it was both the distinguishing feature of the confession theologically and politically. In the sixteenth century, adult baptism, or believer’s baptism, was “cited more often than any other doctrine as the crime condemning an Anabaptist to execution.”5 The connection between baptism and death was not lost to hymnodists, who frequently set baptism in a context of suffering. In addition to the baptismal sequence of grace followed by water, Anabaptists understood there to be a third rite of baptism: that of blood.

The Lord Jesus Christ, therefore,
assigns three witnesses for us.
The two are called water and Spirit.
The third, blood, that is, suffering.6

In a very real way, Anabaptists thought of baptism as the first step on the path to martyrdom. Baptism was a commitment to a godly life and a suffering life, a statement of faith that was a violation and rejection of the state church punishable by death. The emphasis of suffering in sixteenth-century Anabaptism, especially among the Swiss Brethren, was both a response to their experiences as a persecuted people and their theological formulation that true Christian discipleship demanded that Christians follow in the way of Christ, suffering as Christ suffered.

The importance of believer’s baptism was stressed in the context of martyr hymns, like in the account of the imprisonment, trial, and execution of Claesken Gaeledochter. In recounting Claesken’s inquisition, the hymnodist stresses her commitment to believer’s baptism, intimate knowledge of Scripture, and personal and passionate spirituality—all of which are common themes in Anabaptist martyr hymns.

About her baptism he did question;
But she, without alt’ring her course,
Courageously the Scriptures told:
That of new life and repentance
Both John and Christ most clearly tell;
‘Repentance first!’ was taught the people.7

Not confined to a baptismal context, Anabaptists’ theology of suffering consistently appears throughout their robust oral and literary traditions, most especially in their hymns.8 Like other confessions of the Reformation, Anabaptists connected their own suffering to the larger narrative of Christian persecution. One Passau hymnodist recounted the lineage of Christian suffering, declaring that “it began with Abel.”9 The author goes on to write:

Afterwards, all the prophets
and other pious also—
some were killed,
other experienced especially great humiliation
through fear and distress, cross and affliction.10

Anabaptist hymnodists accounted for the suffering of martyrs as well as their own affliction. In doing so, many hymns depicted imprisonment, torture, and execution in graphic detail. Stanzas told of burning, beheading, drowning, and stretching on the rack, along with other forms of physical torment. One of the most gruesome examples appears in the hymnal account of Elisabeth van Leeuwarden:

They had two thumbscrews put on
When for a long time she refused to confess,
So that they smashed thumb and fingers
Till the blood spurted out from her nails.11

However grim this theology of suffering may seem, it was often closely linked to messages of consolation and hope. The acceptance of “innocent suffering,” as one wrote, was not only a manifestation of discipleship but necessary for salvation.12 This union between suffering and salvation simultaneously inspired, sustained, and consoled sixteenth-century Anabaptists. Often, consolatory hymns took the form of prayers, pleading for God to grant peace to the suffering:

In anguish and distress,
Give us the bread of heaven,
And in the pain of death
Let peace to us be given.13

Anabaptist hymnodists also looked directly to Christ to inspire their work, as in this stanza, adapted from the Sermon on the Mount:

When you are slandered and abused now,
Persecuted and beaten for my sake,
be joyful, for see, your reward
is prepared for you on heaven’s throne.14

Many hymns that connected suffering to consolation and salvation were created by those who immediately needed such a message, namely, the imprisoned. The most famous collection of such hymns is the Ausbund, the primary hymnal of the Swiss Brethren. The core of this hymnal was first published in 1564 and consisted of fifty-three hymns, which were composed by Swiss Brethren Anabaptists imprisoned in Passau between 1535 and 1540 and include hymns written by well-known early Anabaptist leaders such as George Blaurock, Felix Mantz, and Michael Sattler, and others.15

Motifs of sorrow and distress underscore much of the Ausbund, a clear reflection of the immediate situation of the hymns’ authors. These understandable themes, however, are offset by “a note of triumph [and] of a conviction that [the authors’] past of sorrow and tribulation is leading them to everlasting life.”16 In one hymn, Michael Schneider joins the reality of bondage and suffering with the hope of salvation in the opening and closing stanzas:

We cry to you, Lord God,
and lament to you all our distress,
which now confronts us
in dungeons and in stocks
where they have stuck us.
Give our spirit power and much strength
that it may lay hold of the goal
which has long stood before us,
so that we might obtain it.
O God, Release the captives! Amen.17

Schneider’s urgency, religious conviction, and belief in the salvation of and from suffering were common themes often repeated in many of the hymns composed in Passau.

While the composition of many hymns was often an individual practice of meditation and expression, singing hymns was nearly always communal. For early Anabaptists across Europe, the singing of hymns was decidedly a shared practice, be it in a congregational, familial, or clandestine setting.18 Because of the wide variety of Anabaptist hymnody, songs were sung to worship God, express religious ideas, commemorate martyrs, and give comfort and hope to the persecuted and imprisoned. Dutch martyrologist Hans de Ries believed that “songs of the cross” were “profitable to be sung at times when the congregation [was] burdened with the cross and suffering.”19 Anabaptists readily recognized and employed the power that singing hymns could have for a community of believers. Simply, the hymns of the Ausbund and other hymnals were written by the suffering, for the suffering.

Related to the motif of salvation and suffering was the prevalence of a belief in imminent eschatology. Several hymns in the Ausbund expressed the hymnodist’s belief that Christ would soon return and usher in the Kingdom of God. Here, hymnal messages were intended to instill a sense of urgency to convert, repent, and “console the suffering and encourage them to endure a little longer.”20 Michael Schneider conveyed the urgency of repentance in the face of imminent eschatology on multiple instances throughout the Ausbund:

God burned Sodom
for its sinful deeds.
You should accept this.
It is certainly an example
for all who live godlessly
in this time.
God will give them their reward.
The fire is already prepared.21

In another hymn, which anticipates the New Jerusalem in a remarkable forty-six verses, Schneider consoles his audience:

You, Church of God, keep your pure covenant,
namely the covenant of your groom, Christ.
For a short time be patient and suffer.
He will soon give your rest.22

Prominently, Anabaptists experienced and expressed their suffering through the drama of martyrdom, which included not only execution but also imprisonment and prosecution. Although Protestants and Catholics of the sixteenth century also published their own extensive martyrologies, those of Anabaptists were unique in that they were preserved primarily through song. When Anabaptist hymns were published, they rarely appeared with musical notation but rather with a familiar tune designation. Believers preserved these tunes, often adopted from popular folk songs, and the lyrics through communal singing and rote memorization.23 Anabaptism’s distinctive separatism, strong in-group orientation, and low literacy levels among believers contributed to hymnal martyrology for Swiss Brethren and Dutch Anabaptists in the sixteenth century.24

The extant of hymnal martyrologies was not long-lasting among some Anabaptist groups, however. Hans de Ries, who published a new Dutch Mennonite martyrology in 1615—one that became the basis of the Martyr’s Mirror—refashioned much of the content from earlier hymnals into prose. Although no information was lost, a certain distinctiveness was. This editorial decision reflected a transition in Dutch Mennonite life: the stories of martyrs were no longer memorized and sung in secret by illiterate Christians; instead, they were studied openly by the educated.25 The Swiss Brethren and their descendants, on the other hand, continued publishing updated versions of the Ausbund in America until 1785 and in Europe until 1838, which helped to maintain a “theology of suffering…long after the actual experience of martyrdom had become relatively rare.”26 Generally, however, the intense attention paid to the theology and experience salvation and suffering, sustained through early believers’ hymns, faded with their own martyrdom. Nevertheless, an interest in Anabaptist martyrdom is still alive among many present-day Anabaptists.

Despite the near absence of sixteen-century hymns in modern Anabaptist worship and experience, these songs were absolutely foundational to the experience of the Christians who wrote and sang them. The composition and singing of original hymns provided consolation, meaning, and continuity to a persecuted religious movement still in its infancy. The themes of suffering and martyrdom pointed to a distinctive and immensely meaningful aspect unique to this Reformation-era confession. Beyond the narratives which many of these hymns outlined, early Anabaptist hymnodists also unveiled their own understandings of the larger narrative of the unfolding of the Kingdom of God, as well as their place in it. Viewed from the twenty-first century, these hymns provide a unique glimpse into the temporal and existential realities of the first Anabaptists.


1. Galen A. Peters, ed., The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund: Some Beautiful Christian Songs Composed and Sung in the Prison at Passau, Published in 1564, trans. Robert A. Riall (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2003),62.

2. Rosella Reimer Duerksen, “Anabaptist Hymnody of the Sixteenth Century: A Study of Its Marked Individuality Couples with a Dependence upon Contemporary Secular and Sacred Musical Style and Form.” Ph.D. diss., Union Theological Seminary, New York, 1956, 268-269.

3. John D. Rempel, “Anabaptist Religious Literature and Hymnody,” in A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, ed. John D. Roth and James M. Stayer (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2007), 391.

4. Rosella Reimer Duerksen, “Doctrinal Implications in Sixteenth Century Anabaptist Hymnody,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 35, no. 1 (January, 1961), 38.

5. Ibid., 44.

6. Peters, The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund, 266.

7. Hermina Joldersma and Louis Grijp, eds. and trans., Elisabeth’s Manly Courage: Testimonials and Songs of Martyred Anabaptist Women in the Low Countries (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2001), 91.

8. John D. Roth, “Marpeck and the Later Swiss Brethren,” in Roth and Stayer, A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, 352.

9. Peters, The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund, 409.

10. Ibid.

11. Joldersma and Grijp, Elisabeth’s Manly Courage, 119.

12. Duerksen, “Doctrinal Implications in Sixteenth Century Anabaptist Hymnody,” 42.

13. Quoted in Paul M. Yoder, et al., Four Hundred Years with the Ausbund (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1964), 45.

14. Quoted in Gregory, Salvation at Stake, 203.

15. Yoder, et al., Four Hundred Years with the Ausbund, 5-6.

16. Ibid.,6.

17. Peters, The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund, 143-148.

18. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, s.v. “Hymnology of the Anabaptists,” accessed March 2, 2019, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hymnology_of_the_Anabaptists.

19. Quoted in Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 239.

20. Duerksen, “Anabaptist Hymnody of the Sixteenth Century,” 259.

21. Peters, The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund, 133.

22. Ibid.,244.

23. Yoder, et al. Four Hundred Years with the Ausbund, 7.

24. Gregory, Salvation at Stake, 212.

25. Ibid., 237.

26. Roth, “Marpeck and the Later Swiss Brethren,” in Roth and Stayer, A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, 352.

The Rise of LGBTQ Mennonite Leaders

Rachel Waltner Goossen

People identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer have long faced stigmatization and discrimination in many North American Mennonite churches and institutions. But during the past decade, two parallel denominations, Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, have been moving sporadically but irrefutably toward policies of inclusiveness.1 The rise of LGBTQ Mennonite leaders is reshaping the North American Mennonite world, expanding a faith tradition that has staked its identity to radical Christian nonviolence and reinterpreting what it means to live in peaceable communities.

These changes within several Mennonite groups, which have been accompanied by intense controversy and schism, signify substantial developments in Anabaptist faith traditions. Until the early 2000s, when profiles of LGBTQ Mennonite individuals began appearing in a few publications, Mennonites were rarely visible in histories critiquing homophobia and heterosexism.2 More likely, students of Anabaptism might have encountered stories conforming to, in the words of literary scholar Daniel Shank Cruz, “the usual Mennonite trope of leaving the community because of its restrictions.”3

In 2016, I began interviewing theologically-trained Mennonite leaders on both sides of the Canadian/U.S. border who identify as LGBTQ, a project culminating in newly-published scholarship in the journal Nova Religio: “’Repent of the Sins of Homophobia’: The Rise of Queer Mennonite Leaders.”4 To help me locate potential interviewees, staff and board members of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, headquartered in Minneapolis, provided names of colleagues ranging in age from 24 to 80. Snowball sampling—that is, the practice of following leads gleaned through personal contacts—yielded forty-four seminary-trained LGBTQ leaders across the U.S. and Canada, some of whom no longer affiliated with Mennonite institutions.

Of the forty I was able to contact, thirty individuals consented to interviews. Many of them also made available sermons, letters, photographs, and other relevant documents for this study. Our interviews, which cover personal narratives and engagement with congregations and church-related institutions ranging from schools to mission agencies and publishing houses, provide windows into the experiences of queer leaders across decades and geographic regions. Although I had begun this work intending to document the loss of theologically-trained pastors and others to Mennonite faith communities as a result of discriminatory practices, I learned that their paths had been both complicated and highly variable.

Theda Good (in rainbow stole) at her ordination celebration in Denver, December 2016. Courtesy Theda Good

In some cases, individuals had been pushed out of their faith communities or had left in search of more hospitable church homes. Stories of harm and spiritual violence, both episodic and sustained, are an integral part of these oral history narratives. At the same time, many interviewees recounted how they persisted in professional roles as Mennonite pastors, chaplains, and administrators, despite barriers embedded in institutional policies and practices. Still others, who in previous decades had departed their faith communities under painful circumstances, had eventually circled back to Mennonite structures undergoing profound theological shifts regarding sexual ethics and congregational hospitality.5

Interviews conducted for this study are now available for further research at the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Elkhart, Indiana.6 Leaders whose narratives have been archived include Sharon Andre, Michelle Burkholder, Jason Frey, Joanne Gallardo, Theda Good, Sarah Klaassen, Shannon Neufeldt, Paula Northwood, John Rempel, Annabeth Roeschley, Russ Schmidt, and Randy Spaulding. Additional Mennonite pastors and theologians who are hetero-identified and allied with LGBTQ Mennonites also contributed interviews for archival repository and public dissemination. Notably, former Mennonite Church USA officials Ervin Stutzman and Nancy Kauffmann, prior to retiring from their administrative positions in 2018, also went on record with interviews focused on their practices affecting LGBTQ pastoral candidates. In their interviews, Stutzman and Kauffmann reflected on the sustained criticisms of the denomination’s policies from the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, Pink Menno, and other progressive activists within the church, as well as the exodus of conservative churches and conferences from Mennonite Church USA.7

This body of recorded oral histories is a significant resource for contemporary Mennonite studies. At its heart are first person narratives of theologically-trained individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer. Some of the interviewees have been in leadership in Mennonite congregations that have long welcomed all adherents, regardless of sexual orientation.8 One respondent, for example, recounted the prophetic witness of the Hyattsville Mennonite congregation in Maryland, which, she noted, has been a welcoming church for more than three decades and, as such, has earned the status of “rebel stepchild in the Mennonite Church.”9 But nearly all the respondents, in their personal and professional lives, have navigated far more conventional Mennonite settings.

The oral histories reveal how complex negotiations have been in the broader Mennonite world, as queer leaders and their allies have strategized to transform churchwide perspectives on sexual identity, and, in some cases, have moved to less heteronormative sites to practice their faith.10 Some left the church temporarily, even for decades, before returning with broadened perspectives to Mennonite settings. When queer Mennonite leaders and their allies departed, where, denominationally speaking, did they go? The evidence suggests that most individuals who moved away from Mennonite affiliations turned to the Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Society of Friends (Quakers), United Church of Canada, and the Unitarian Universalists. Others have circled again into Mennonite congregations that have grappled with, and ultimately dropped, exclusionary practices.

The oral history interviews make clear that “staying Mennonite” is not necessarily the most desirable outcome for pastoral leaders who have moved on to other faith traditions. Most who leave continue to identify culturally and theologically as Anabaptist Mennonites, even while serving as pastors, chaplains, and administrators in other faith communities. Several of the interviewees referenced other Mennonite pastors, beyond the scope of this study, who identify as LGBTQ but, at present, remain circumspect about publicly acknowledging their sexual identities. And although I sought to interview transgender Mennonites, only one transgender person agreed to be interviewed. Further historical research is needed on transgender leadership in Mennonite settings, as well as on the experiences of LGBTQ Mennonites who are not theologically trained.11

The witness of LGBTQ-identified leaders living their lives authentically continues to impact faith communities across geographic and denominational boundaries. Their perspectives inform and alter Mennonite institutions that are seeking, however convulsively, to acknowledge and address homophobic religious culture reaching back many decades. Beginning in 2014 with Theda Good’s ministerial licensing at First Mennonite Church in Denver and continuing to the present, regional conferences within Mennonite USA that have licensed openly LGBTQ pastors and chaplains include Mountain States Mennonite Conference, Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference, Central District Mennonite Conference, and Allegheny Mennonite Conference.12

The quickening pace of LGBTQ leaders arriving into and heading out from Mennonite institutional life blurs the lines of denominational identification, as openly queer pastors and theologians move into positions of influence in and beyond the Mennonite church. While many sectors within the broader Anabaptist landscape—not only in North America, but worldwide—continue to deny calls for equity and justice, queer leaders are pushing Mennonite bodies to make history, dismantling discrimination against LGBTQ-identified members and confronting the sins of homophobia.13

Rachel Waltner Goossen is Professor of History at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. Thanks to Ben Goossen for providing comments on this essay.


1. In 2020, for example, an advisory group within Mennonite Church USA proposed a series of nondiscriminatory practices regarding LGBTQ individuals; formal action is expected in 2021. See “Report from the Advisory Group on Mennonite Church USA Guidelines,” 27 January 2020, http://mennoniteusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/REPORT-MGAdvisoryGroup-Final-2.pdf; “Panel Recommends Retiring Membership Guidelines,” Mennonite World Review, 10 February 2020, 1, 13. On the Canadian context, see the General Board of MC Canada’s statement of apology to LGBTQ individuals across the denomination, “General Board Confession,” The Canadian Mennonite, 29 Sept. 2017, http://www.canadianmennonite.org/stories/general-board-confession.

2. Significant scholarship includes Roberta Showalter Kreider, From Wounded Hearts: Faith Stories of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People and Those Who Love Them(Gaithersburg, MD: Chi Rho Press, 1998); Together in Love: Faith Stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Couples (Kulpsville, PA: Strategic Press, 2002); The Cost of Truth: Faith Stories of Mennonite and Brethren Leaders and Those Who Might Have Been (Kulpsville, PA: Strategic Press, 2004); Alicia Dueck, Negotiating Sexual Identities: Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Perspectives on Being Mennonite (Zurich: LitVerlag, 2012); Stephanie Krehbiel, “Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA,” Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 2015, and Irma Fast Dueck and Darryl Neustaedter Barg, The Listening Church, documentary, 2016, http://listeningchurch.ca/?page_id¼16.

3. Queering Mennonite Literature: Archives, Activism, and the Search for Community (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019), 136.

4. Rachel Waltner Goossen, “’Repent of the Sins of Homophobia’: The Rise of Queer Mennonite Leaders,” Nova Religio, 24 (February 2021): 68-95. Academic audiences provided commentary that informed this work at the Crossing the Line Conference, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, in June 2017; the Menno Simons Lectures, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, in October 2018; the Women Doing Theology Conference, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, in November 2018; and the Queer History Conference, San Francisco State University, in June 2019.

5. Examples include Shannon Neufeldt, Keith Schrag, and Randy Spaulding.

6. Rachel Waltner Goossen Collection on LGBTQ Mennonite Leaders, 2016-2020, HM1-1030, Mennonite Church USA Archives, Elkhart, Indiana, https://archives.mhsc.ca/index.php/rachel-waltner-goossen-collection-on-lgbtq-mennonite-leaders.

7. Stutzman interview via phone, Harrisonburg, VA, 5 February 2018, audio recording; Kauffmann interview via Skype, 18 January 2018, Elkhart, IN, audio recording. On the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests and Pink Menno, see “BMC Mission and Vision,” https://www.bmclgbt.org/about, and “Pink Menno: History and Vision,” http://www.pinkmenno.org/history-vision/.

8. Cf. Richard Lichty, An Increase in Time: Story Lines of Germantown Mennonite Church and Its Historic Trust, 1683-2005 (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2015), and an account of Hyattsville Mennonite Church’s relationship to Allegheny Mennonite Conference in Emma Green, “Gay and Mennonite,” The Atlantic, 18 March 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/03/gay-and-mennonite/388060/.

9. Annabeth Roeschley interview via Skype, Washington, D.C., 5 Sept. 2017, audio recording.

10. On queer theologians incorporating personal experience, see Stephanie Chandler Burns, “Queering Anabaptist Theology: An Endeavor in Breaking Binaries as Hermeneutical Community,” in Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision: New Essays in Anabaptist Identity and Theological Method, eds. Laura Schmidt Roberts, Paul Martens, and Myron A. Penner (London: T&T Clark, 2020), 77–92.

11. The Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests’ Oral History Project, one avenue for fruitful research, makes available videotaped oral history records pertaining to individuals from multiple Anabaptist groups; see https://www.bmclgbt.org/center-history.

12. On the historic first licensing of an openly queer leader in Mennonite Church USA, see “Theda Good, Lesbian Mennonite Minister, Licensed in Denver, a First Step Towards Gay Ordination,” Huffington Post, 4 February 2014, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/theda-good-gay-mennonite_n_4723272.

13. This study is intended to spur broader research on other continents, as well. Mennonite leaders identifying as queer are prominent in Europe, but LGBTQ membership and leadership remain controversial among adherents in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. See Rachel Waltner Goossen, “Transnational Perspectives: LGBTQ Mennonites,” chapter in Just Peace, Vol. 2, Amsterdam Centre for Religion and Peace and Justice Studies, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, forthcoming.

Teaching Mennonite History in “Historic Times”

As a historian, I am well aware that all times are in some sense historic, that every time period and every surviving source worthy of study, and yet, like so many of us, I have been well aware that the events of the past year—the Covid-19 pandemic, the protests for racial justice and against police brutality that spanned first America and then the globe, and the end of the Trump presidency—are events that my descendants will ask about, in the same way that I have been curious about my grandparents’ experiences of World War II. Likewise, I am confident that future students taking Mennonite history courses will want to know how Mennonites and other Anabaptists were affected by and responded to these events—as in fact, did my current students, who brought up some of these topics in their online discussions. This, then, is the beginning of a modest collection of contemporary links, in the hope that they might serve as useful primary sources for future Mennonite history instructors and students writing term papers as they attempt to make sense of the past year.

Covid-19

When it first became evident that Covid-19 would spread virtually unchecked across North America, I couldn’t help but think of the Amish and Old Order Mennonites who refuse both private and government-run health insurance might be affected. Would they be more reluctant to seek medical care for Covid as a result? Moreover, how difficult would it be for them to maintain social distancing without many of the technological solutions that the rest of us have used to fill the gap?

I was intrigued by this post from Penn Medicine, which discussed health outreach efforts among the Amish by Lancaster General Health, useful as a way to see how Amish communities in Lancaster County have been affected and how health care workers have tried to provide Covid safety guidance in culturally appropriate ways.1

This CBC news article detailed how, a month into the pandemic, Hutterite and Old Order Mennonite communities in Canada were adapting to restrictions on gatherings.2 The better part of a year after these restrictions have been put in place, the cost of isolation is felt even more keenly.

Of course, anyone seeking to learn how more assimilated Mennonite churches have weathered the pandemic is faced with an embarrassment of riches, as more churches than ever have recorded sermons and even full services and shared them online over the past year.

Black Lives Matter

During the protests following the murder of George Floyd, an image and video quickly circulated featuring a group of people in plain dress, singing hymns and holding signs that read “Justice for George Floyd,” “Thou Shalt Not Kill Anyone,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and “Standing Against Systems of Oppression.” Twitter users quickly identified the group as Amish, and tweets about Amish support for Black Lives Matter quickly proliferated. One such post, by Twitter user @nedwhat, garnered over 400, 000 likes.3 In fact, these protesters were not Amish at all, but members of the Church of God (Restoration), a church with no Anabaptist affiliation based in Greenville, Ohio.4

Though the actual Amish do not appear to have participated in Black Lives Matter protests in any great numbers, other Anabaptists did. On June 1st, Mennonite Church USA released a statement on racial injustice that forcefully repudiated white supremacy and state violence and encouraged Mennonite congregations “to lament and pray together…to stand in solidarity with communities of color, walk alongside them and, indeed, be led by them.”5 My own city of Portland became a particular point of national and international media attention, and several members of Portland Mennonite Church participated in peaceful protests across the city. Britt Carlson, our pastor of community life, also wrote a reflection on the citywide protests for Baptist News.6

Members of Portland Mennonite Church participate in a protest for racial justice. Photo by Art Wright.

The 2020 Election

As journalists and political strategists attempted to determine which candidate might carry the swing states in the Great Lakes region, several outlets published pieces about the political sympathies of Amish communities in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. Many of the Amish interviewees had a broadly favorable opinion of Trump’s presidency, particularly his support of deregulation and his perceived support of businesses.7 Amish voter turnout remained low in the 2020 election, but opposition to restrictions on businesses and religious gatherings designed to curb the spread of Covid-19 appears to have motivated at least some younger Amish voters.8 The ongoing work of Steve Nolt and Kyle Kopko of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College will no doubt help to clarify how Amish turnout in 2020 compared to past year.

We are, of course, in the midst of these events still. It remains to be seen just how various Mennonite and other Anabaptist communities will have been shaped in the long term by the events of the pandemic, the ongoing work of racial justice, and the increasing political polarization in the United States (and indeed in many parts of the world). I welcome additional links and resources in the comments as well, in the hopes that this collection might continue to evolve as the situation does.


1 Mary Beth Schweigert, “How Amish Communities are Staying Safer from the COVID-19 Pandemic with Help from Good Neighbors at Lancaster General Health,” Penn Medicine News Blog, 1 September 2020, http://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-blog/2020/september/how-amish-communities-are-staying-safer-from-the-covid.

2 Karen Pauls, “’We, too, are part of this world’: How Hutterites, Old Order Mennonites are responding to COVID-19,” CBC News, 1 April 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/hutterites-covid-mennonites-1.5515797.

3 WhatTheNed, Twitter Post, May 29, 2020, https://twitter.com/NedWhat/status/1266515656037588992.

4 Adrienne Dunn, “Fact check: Images of witches, ‘Amish’ supposedly at Floyd protest are out of context,” USA Today, 19 June 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/06/19/fact-check-viral-photos-dont-show-witches-amish-floyd-protests/3195430001/.

5 Mennonite Church Executive Board Staff, “Mennonite Church USA statement on racial injustice

By Mennonite Church Executive Board staff,” Mennonite Church USA, 1 June 2020, https://www.mennoniteusa.org/news/mc_usa-statement-on-racial-injustice/.

6 Britt Carlson, “At the Portland protests, I’m afraid the bread won’t rise,” Baptist News Global, 21 July 2020, https://baptistnews.com/article/at-the-portland-protests-im-afraid-the-bread-wont-rise/#.YAqfxuhKjIU.

7 Ted Roelofs, “Michigan’s Amish seem to love Trump. But voting is another matter,” Bridge Michigan, 30 October 2020, https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-government/michigans-amish-seem-love-trump-voting-another-matter; Tim Huber, “Ohio Amish Show Trump Support,” Anabaptist World, 2 October 2020 https://anabaptistworld.org/ohio-amish-show-trump-support/.

8 Gillian McGoldrick, “Was 2020 a breakout year for Amish voters? Here’s what the numbers show,” Lancaster Online, 30 November 2020, https://lancasteronline.com/news/local/was-2020-a-breakout-year-for-amish-voters-heres-what-the-numbers-show/article_f77af684-32a7-11eb-b3ec-13a56697652f.html.

Humility and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language

Mark L. Louden

A German hymn popular among Amish and traditional Mennonites centers on humility, a cardinal virtue in Plain Anabaptist life.

Demut ist die schönste Tugend,
Aller Christen Ruhm und Ehr’,
Denn sie zieret unsere Jugend
Und das Alter noch viel mehr.

Humility is the most beautiful virtue,
The glory and honor of all Christians,
For it adorns our youth
And old age even more so.

It’s fair to say that humility is receding as a lodestar in many mainstream Americans’ lives, as a December 2019 article in the online publication Medium explored.1 Empathy, a hallmark of humility, has, according to the article’s author, lost ground to narcissism, especially in public life. The continued centrality of humility in Plain culture is one of many intangible ways in which Amish and traditional Mennonites stand apart from many of their non-Plain neighbors.

As observers of traditional Anabaptist groups have noted, their identity as people of faith is expressed visibly, most obviously in the ways they dress and groom themselves. Plain people read 1 Peter 5:5, for example, as a literal call to express their humility through what they wear.

… And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”

Plain humility is encoded linguistically as well. In a manual on Christian (i.e., humble) living directed at Amish youth, there is a section devoted to how one should speak. Seven principles for appropriate speech are laid out, each supported by Scripture.

  1. To speak only the truth
  2. To be simple and straightforward in our speech
  3. To be “slow to speak”
  4. To return good for evil
  5. Sometimes it is better to be quiet
  6. To be consistent in our speech
  7. To be a good witness to non-Christians2

The anonymous editors of this manual do not suggest that any specific language is more or less suited to humble speech. However Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking Plain people, which includes most Amish and Old Order Mennonites, do often perceive a link between the maintenance of their German-related vernacular language alongside standard German for devotional purposes and humility.

Both plain dress and “keeping Dutch” are connected in an interesting quote collected by the Old Order historian Amos B. Hoover and included in his wonderful book, German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage. In a conversation with Hoover, a Weaverland Conference Mennonite minister, Luke N. Good (1928–2015), shared the following thoughts.

Ich meen, es Deitsch as mir hen is ken gschriwweni Schprooch, awwer is genunk fer helfe uns zammehalde. Gott hot die Schprooche verwechselt un es hot gedient zum Gude. Nau velleicht sette mer net schaffe fer en unified Schprooch. Ich denk als oft, glei as ich bei die Gmee war, hot en aldi Fraa grode, “Die Schulkinner sette aa wennig lanne ihre Greiz draage, mit die Gleederdracht.” Un ich meen aa so mit die Schprooch. S’is gut wann sie wennig gschpott warre.3

In my opinion, though the German we have is not a written language, it is enough to help keep us together as a people. God confused the languages, and it served a good purpose. Now maybe we should not strive for a unified language. I often think how an old sister counseled, soon after I had joined the church, that “children should also learn a little something about bearing their cross, with their clothing style.” I think also it is thus with the language. It is good for them to endure a little ridicule.

Plain people are not the only Pennsylvania Dutch speakers to associate humility with how one dresses and what and how one speaks. So-called “Fancy Dutch,” the descendants of mainly Lutheran and German Reformed immigrants who comprised the great majority of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers into the 20th century, expressed sensibilities much like those of Luke N. Good.

Below is an excerpt from a dialog in Pennsylvania Dutch that appeared in 1841 in a German-language Lutheran newspaper published in Easton, PA. Although the author and most if not all of his readers were native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, German was at that time the preferred medium for writing. Whenever Pennsylvania Dutch was used in print, it marked a shift to a more direct, colloquial style that connected author and reader closely. The two men in the dialog from which the text below is excerpted were members of the same Lutheran congregation.

Wer sei Schprooch verlaesst, daer schemmt sich noch vun sei Eldre un verlaesst noch sei Religion un watt en Maddedischt. Un is denn die englisch Schprooch vornemmer un schenner as die deitsch? Ich denk net. Unser alder Parre hett immer gsaat dass die deitsch Schprooch die vornemmscht un bescht waer, un sell glaawich aa. Awwer sobald der Hochmut in die junge Leit faahrt, wolle sie englisch sei un schemme sich, Deitsch zu schwetze, as wann’s Sind un Schand waer.

Waar’s Deitsch gut genung fer mich, so denk ich, is’s aa gut genung fer mei Kinner. Sie sin deitsch un solle aa deitsch bleiwe. So viel Englisch wie sie breichte, lanne sie ennihau uf der Schtroos.

Whoever abandons his language is ashamed of his parents and will leave his faith and become a Methodist. And is the English language really loftier and more beautiful than German? I don’t think so. Our old pastor always said that the German language was the loftiest and best and I believe that, too. But as soon as pride enters young people, they want to be English and are ashamed of speaking German, as if that were a sin and scandal.

If German was good enough for me, then I think it is good enough for my children, too. They’re German and should stay German, too. They’ll learn all the English they’ll need in the street, anyway.

In prose and poetic texts in the 19th and 20th centuries, Pennsylvania Dutch writers often lamented the tendency for youth to stray, which aside from preferring English was also reflected in their worldly fashions. One example that appeared in several German-language newspapers in Pennsylvania starting in the 1860s was a reader’s letter titled “Teite Hosen un Ständups mache der Mann net” (Tight Pants and Standup Collars Do Not Make the Man).4 The letter concludes with this verse:

Fer weiti Hupps un teiti Hosse
Nemmt mer besser sich in Acht,
Sie sin graad wie falschi Rose,
Zum Verfiehre yuscht gmacht.
Zwar gucke sie recht fei un schee,
Doch wer kann dehinner seh?

Of wide hoops and tight pants
One had better beware;
They are like fake roses,
Made just to lead astray.
They may look quite fancy and pretty,
Yet who can see through them?

Though the author of this poem was almost certainly a Fancy Dutch male, the sentiments he expresses align well with contemporary Plain values. Amish and traditional Mennonite women have never worn hoop skirts and still today males in the most traditional Amish groups, including the Swartzentruber and Nebraska Amish, wear collarless shirts and loosely fitting trousers.

The spirit of the “Tight Pants” text is echoed in the Pennsylvania Dutch poem below from 1870, in which the “poor soul” quoted prefers both stylish clothing and English over her native tongue.

So schteck ich do in meine Hupps
Un bin en aarmi Seel,
Ausse glatt un inne Schmutz,
So simmer unni Fehl.
Un wann ich yuscht drei Sent noch hab,
So muss ich doch in Schtoor.
Datt muss der letschte Kupper fatt,
So geht’s vun Yaahr zu Yaahr.
Schwetzt ennich epper zu mir Deitsch
Un froogt mich, ‘Kannscht du des?”
So saag ich awwer jo net “Ja”,
Ich saag in Englisch, “Yes!’5

That’s how I am in my hoops,
A poor soul,
Smooth on the outside and dirty on the inside,
That’s how we are without fail.
And when I’m down to my last three cents
I still have to go to the store.
That’s where the last copper has to go,
So it goes, year in and year out.
If someone speaks to me in Dutch
And asks, “Can you understand?”
Then of course I don’t say “Ja”,
I say in English, “Yes!”

Just as Plain people ensure the survival of the Pennsylvania Dutch language in the twenty-first century, so too do they continue the tradition once shared by their “Fancy” neighbors of linking both language and modest dress with the time-honored virtue of humility.


1 Brooke Meredith, “Kindness and Humility Have Taken a Nosedive in America,” Medium, December 29, 2019. (Accessible at: https://medium.com/swlh/kindness-and-humility-have-taken-a-nosedive-in-america-67a1d912d53c).

2 1001 Questions on the Christian Life, Aylmer, ON: Pathway Publishers, 1992, p. 113.

3 Amos B. Hoover, German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage, Ephrata, PA: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 2018, pp. 52–54.

4 Ludwig A. Wollenweber, Gemälde aus dem pennsylvanischen Volksleben, Philadelphia and Leipzig: Schäfer and Koradi, 1869, p. 100.

5 Reading Adler, February 25, 1870.

How A Nazi Death Squad Viewed Mennonites

What did it mean to be Mennonite during the Holocaust? The records of a Nazi death squad that killed tens of thousands of Jews in Ukraine during the Second World War offer one perspective. This death squad, Einsatzgruppe C, produced detailed reports for superiors in Berlin on a nearly daily basis during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. In addition to meticulous counts of Jews, communists, and others murdered under their command, the officers of Einsatzgruppe C devoted substantial attention to pockets of German-speaking communities that they encountered across Ukraine, including large Mennonite settlements. These wartime documents show how the Third Reich’s most infamous killing units treated local Mennonites while perpetrating genocide.

Einsatzgruppe C was one of four major death squads (labeled A, B, C, and D) that the SS created in 1941 to conduct ethnic cleansing and racial warfare in newly conquered regions of the Soviet Union. Each Einsatzgruppe operated in the wake of an army group. They collectively comprised about 3,000 members. These murder units grew more ruthless as they went, at first killing mostly men, but then also slaughtering women and children. Einsatzgruppe C worked in areas destined for civil administration. This territory became the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. It encompassed several Mennonite colonies including the region’s oldest settlement, Chortitza. By contrast, the largest colony, Molotschna, lay to the south in a military district assigned to Einsatzgruppe D.1

Experiences in western and central Ukraine with Lutheran and Catholic German speakers shaped Einsatzgruppe C’s attitudes toward the Mennonites it encountered farther east. Prior to invading the Soviet Union, Nazi officials feared that few “ethnic Germans” would be left alive in the areas they conquered, and that those remaining would be hardened communists. Invaders were instead pleased to discover large groups of anti-Bolshevik German speakers. “The impression that these people make is surprisingly good,” Einsatzgruppe C reported. “There can be no talk of any kind of Bolshevization.”2 The murder team immediately began integrating these ethnic Germans into its operations, distributing Jewish plunder and placing trusted men in positions of local authority.

The death squad’s officers expressed ambivalence toward Christian piety among ethnic Germans it encountered. On one hand, religious belief had helped preserve their morale during decades of communist oppression. But Einsatzgruppe C also felt the Bolshevik ban on churches had yielded a “positive result,” in that the previously strong divisions between Christian denominations had begun to dissolve, giving way to a common attitude of racial unity: “Clergy must be prevented from reestablishing lines of denominational division.”3 This view was almost certainly shaped by Einsatzgruppe C’s in-house racial expert, Hans Beyer. As a prolific academic and editor, Beyer was well versed in the history of Ukraine’s Mennonites, whom he would soon meet in person.4

Einsatzgruppe C had already operated across west and central Ukraine before encountering areas of Mennonite settlement to the east. This map shows massacres by the death squad up to its arrival near the Dnieper River. Red circles denote the three Mennonite areas discussed at greatest length in officers’ reports (from left to right: Kronau, Stalindorf, Chortitza). Map adapted from Dieter Pohl, “The Murder of Ukraine’s Jews under German Military Administration and in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine,” in The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization, ed. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 36.

Hans Beyer and other members of Einsatzgruppe C arrived in areas of Mennonite settlement by September 1941. Their sub-unit, Einsatzkommando 6 (EK 6), established temporary headquarters in the city of Kryvyi Rih. In evaluating ethnic German villages around Kryvyi Rih, EK 6 devoted attention to what it considered a “strange mixed settlement” called Stalindorf. Thousands of Jews lived alongside hundreds of ethnic Germans. The latter group included Mennonites, described as being of “Dutch” origin but nonetheless fully Germanized. The pre-Soviet state had settled these families as model farmers for the Jews. “The Jews conducted a regime of terror and rigorously exploited the German farmers,” EK 6 reported. “The hate against the Jews is accordingly large.”5

To what extent can historians trust the sociological evaluations of a genocidal murder squad like Einsatzgruppe C? The officers of this unit possessed a fanatical hatred of Jews that led them to drastically misunderstand the basic dynamics of communist society. “Our experiences confirm the earlier assumption,” one report asserted, “that the Soviet state is in the purest sense a Jewish state.”6 Members appear to have truly believed that Jews controlled every significant political organization, city administration, and commercial enterprise in Ukraine. To “liquidate” Jewish leaders—and eventually the entirety of the region’s Jews—made strategic and economic sense to the killers of Einsatzgruppe C, who saw murder as a prerequisite to breaking Bolshevik power.

The killers of Einsatzgruppe C believed their mass murder of Jews to be part and parcel of Hitler’s plan to break communist power. Here, Soviet prisoners of war march past a sign for the Chortitza colony in eastern Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Source: Mennonite Heritage Centre, Photograph 351-27.

Einsatzgruppe C hoped that local populations, including Mennonites, would share its extremist views. The death squad’s officers were therefore predisposed to overstate anti-Judaism among locals. Yet Nazi expectations also pushed these groups to become more antisemitic than they might otherwise have been. To convince Ukraine’s general populace that mass murder would be carried out mainly against Jews, officers marched victims through villages in broad daylight. They also involved local militias in the killings, distributing complicity. “Executions of Jews were everywhere accepted and viewed positively,” Einsatzgruppe C evaluated. “What is striking is the calm with which the delinquents allow themselves to be shot, both Jews and non-Jews.”7

The death squad took pride in killing a small number of ethnic Germans known to have served as Soviet bureaucrats or police informants. “The population’s trust in [our] activities,” officers reported, “has been further strengthened because in necessary cases, the most serious measures are also taken against ethnic Germans.”8 SS leaders expressed special disgust for ethnic Germans who had helped Bolshevik police arrest, deport, or kill fellow Germans. Einsatzgruppe C showed remarkable leniency, however, to individuals who claimed that their work for Soviet offices had been coerced. Indeed, numerous former Soviet secret police agents of myriad ethnic backgrounds collaborated with Nazi occupiers, offering their service in hopes of surmounting suspect pasts.9

One former Soviet agent who joined Einsatzgruppe C was a Mennonite woman named Amalie Reimer. Originally from the Chortitza settlement, Reimer had slipped behind German lines as an undercover Soviet spy. Instead of completing this task, however, she defected. Asking to speak with the highest German authority, Reimer arrived at the EK 6 headquarters in Kryvyi Rih. She told the death squad that she had been forced into spying against her will. Reimer explained that Soviet police had deported her husband, and they further threatened to imprison her and to harm her five-year-old son. EK 6 extended Reimer the benefit of the doubt. The death squad’s officers treated her tale as reliable evidence of ethnic Germans’ horrific oppression under communism.10

Historian Doris Bergen has argued that the Nazi term “ethnic German” (Volksdeutsche) helped to exacerbate antisemitism among German speakers in Eastern Europe during World War II. People categorized as ethnic Germans could access favorable treatment from Hitler’s forces. Achieving this desirable status often required racial appraisal. Applicants could provide genealogical data or demonstrate their fluency in German folkways. Borderline cases could also prove their political loyalty by participating in Holocaust atrocities.11 Records produced by Einsatzgruppe C suggest that the term “Mennonite” constituted an even more desirable sub-category of belonging than the more general “Volksdeutsche” designation. Hopes for high status gave incentives to collaborate.

A map of the Chortitza colony in eastern Ukraine drawn by Nazi occupation officials in 1942. Racially cleansed “ethnic German” villages are marked with swastika flags. The sub-commando EK 6 of Einsatzgruppe C operated around Chortitza and the nearby large city of Zaporizhzhia on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River (shaded here in black) during the autumn of 1941. Source: BArch, R6/622.

The case of Amalie Reimer illustrates how the concept “Mennonite” held coveted value during the Holocaust. Although EK 6 did not yet know it when Reimer presented herself in Kryvyi Rih, she was a persona non grata in her home community of Chortitza. Numerous local Mennonites firmly believed that Reimer had not been forced to act as a Soviet spy. Rather, they saw her as a hardened communist who had personally betrayed many fellow ethnic Germans. One rumor even held that Reimer, having grown unhappy in her marriage, had sold out her own husband to the Soviet secret service. Reimer made sure to steer clear of her hometown, where accusations against her had convinced the Mennonite chief of police to arrest her, should she ever return.12

Reimer may have been rejected by her fellow Mennonites, but she carefully portrayed herself to Nazi authorities as a good and upstanding community member. Nazi officers who interviewed Reimer in Kryvyi Rih clearly accepted her motives.13 An autobiographical account penned later in the war reveals what Reimer probably told her interviewers. “I had a joyful childhood,” she wrote, “and was raised in the Mennonite faith.” Reimer underlined this information. It was the only phrase she underlined in the entire document, including her discussion of atrocities against ethnic Germans, reference to Stalin’s secret police as a “Jewish organization,” or promise to be a “loyal daughter of the German country.”14 For Reimer, being Mennonite already implied the rest.

SS race experts considered members of the denomination to be unusually pure and industrious specimens of Aryanism. Einsatzgruppe C expressed ambivalence toward Mennonite religiosity, but officers were no more disparaging than they had been toward the faith of the Lutherans and Catholics already evaluated to the west: “Despite their religious fundamentalism, their German racial consciousness and faith in the Führer and Reich has been uniformly strongly awakened.”15 Indeed, a comprehensive SS report on German speakers in eastern Ukraine (based on data from Einsatzgruppe C as well as from units to the south) concluded that “the Mennonites make the consistently best physical and spiritual impression of all the ethnic Germans assessed so far.”16

High-ranking Nazi officials accelerated the Holocaust precisely as killing squads arrived in areas of Ukraine with large Mennonite populations. The head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, visited EK 6 in Kryvyi Rih in early October. This trip helped Himmler formulate plans to reshape Ukraine as an Aryan utopia. After Himmler told subordinates to intensify their murder operations, EK 6 shot Jewish women for the first time.17 Himmler also tasked an SS officer who had accompanied him to Ukraine, Karl Götz, with eventually importing hundreds of thousands of German farmers from overseas for settlement in Eastern Europe.18 Götz envisioned a special role for Mennonites in this process, and he reached out to denominational leaders in Germany to coordinate plans.19

More local Mennonites, besides Amalie Reimer, soon became entangled in the activities of EK 6. Himmler’s visit to Kryvyi Rih had coincided with the Nazi conquest of Zaporizhzhia, a large city near Chortitza. From October 5 to November 19, EK 6 reported murdering 1,000 Jews during operations in the Dnieper Bend, and it initiated plans to kill 1,500 individuals with mental and physical disabilities.20 Some local Mennonites denounced their neighbors as the SS arrived, and others may have directly participated in shootings. At a postwar trial, one former commander of EK 6 reported that a number of ethnic Germans had joined the death squad: “There were students who had experienced how their parents were shot. It actually frightened us, what bloodlust they had.”21 Further reserach is required to understand the full extent of Mennonite participation.

The brutality of the Nazi occupation created violent cycles that drew Mennonites and others into crimes. While in the Zaporizhzhia region, EK 6 complained that its work had been hampered by huge quantities of denunciations. “Nearly all the residents consider it necessary,” officers wrote, “to self-interestedly denounce their relatives, friends, etc., to the German police as having been communists.”22 The complexity of assessing these accusations’ validity in turn created roles for local collaborators to prove their worth. Amalie Reimer—after retrieving her son, whom she had hidden with a Russian family—traveled with EK 6 to the regional capital, Dnepropetrovsk. She worked there for the General Commissar and regularly performed confidential tasks for the SD.23

Most Mennonites in Nazi-occupied Ukraine received goods and privileges as Jews and others were slaughtered around them. Religious life even flourished again after years of repression under atheistic Bolshevik rule. Here, a Mennonite church leader baptizes women from Chortitza in the Dnieper River, 1943. Source: Magnum Photos.

Regardless of whether other Mennonites continued onward with EK 6, its decisions—along with the wartime empowerment of ethnic Germans—ensured local Mennonites’ further involvement in genocide. EK 6 in fact murdered fewer Jews than some comparable death squads. It did not shoot most of Zaporizhzhia’s Jews, explaining: “due to the considerable shortage of skilled workers, we had to keep Jewish craftsmen alive for the time being.”24 Similarly in Stalindorf, EK 6 left most Jews to work.25 Between October 1941 and May 1942, local Mennonite authorities thus participated in the ghettoization, enslavement, and murder of remaining Jews. Some received plunder from the 2,500 Jews in Stalindorf.26 Others helped organize the shooting of 3,700 Jews in Zaporizhzhia.27

National Socialists’ genocidal plans to infuse the ethnically cleansed regions around Ukraine’s Mennonite colonies with vast new migrations of Aryan settlers never came to fruition. Battle losses on the eastern front forced Hitler’s armies into retreat by 1943. Instead of bringing more colonists to Ukraine, the SS evacuated Ukraine’s Germans to the west. Most found themselves in refugee camps in or near occupied Poland. The Third Reich planned to naturalize nearly all these evacuees as German citizens. In a twist of fate, a prominent Mennonite named Johann Epp—the former chief administrator of the Chortitza colony, who was now helping Nazi officials evaluate evacuees’ suitability for citizenship—found Amalie Reimer and her son in one of the camps.28

The unexpected meeting in 1944 between Amalie Reimer and the Mennonite Johann Epp offers a final opportunity to analyze the denomination’s relationship to Einsatzgruppe C. Epp believed that Reimer was a former communist agent, and he recommended she be denied citizenship. Reimer appealed to her SS superiors. They affirmed that her work in Ukraine outweighed any “rumors” and suggested that she be employed in a concentration camp.29 Epp, in turn, submitted damning statements by himself and four other Mennonites, who accused Reimer of betraying kith and kin while fraternizing with Jews and socialists.30 In the end, Reimer was denied citizenship.31 In this remarkable exchange, the opinions of Mennonites outweighed the desires of leading SS officers.

To be within the Mennonite fold during the Holocaust was to wield influence. Einsatzgruppe C’s records prove that prominent Nazis believed killing Jews would rectify communist violence against ethnic Germans. Mennonites, moreover, enjoyed a higher reputation than did ethnic Germans generally. They could even defeat SS officers in disputes. After the war, Mennonite evacuees in Western Europe repurposed tales of suffering in the USSR to cast themselves exclusively as victims. Amalie Reimer adopted this position in postwar testimony at Nuremberg.32 Like thousands of others, she and her son migrated to the Americas through help from Mennonite aid societies.33 Knowledge about the denomination’s connections to a major Nazi death squad subsided, until recently, into obscurity.


Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published by Princeton University Press. Thanks to Laureen Harder-Gissing for providing sources for this essay and to Madeline J. Williams for her comments.


1 It would be valuable to systematically trace Einsatzgruppe D’s interactions with Mennonites during its operations in Transnistria, Crimea, southern Ukraine, and the Caucasus, as this essay does for Einsatzgruppe C’s activities in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. On Einsatzgruppe D and Mennonites, see Mark Jantzen and John Thiesen, eds., European Mennonites and the Holocaust (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020), 3-4, 57-62, 210-220.

2 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 81,” September 12, 1941, in Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941: Dokumente der Einsatzgruppen in der Sowjetunion, ed. Klaus-Michael Mallmann, Andrej Angrick, Jürgen Matthäus, and Martin Cüppers (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2011), 454.

3 Ibid.

4 See Hans Beyer, Aufbau und Entwicklung des ostdeutschen Volkstums (Danzig: Paul Rosenberg, 1935), 109-110; Hans Beyer, “Hauptlinien einer Geschichte der ostdeutschen Volksgruppen im 19. Jahrhundert,” Historische Zeitschrift 162, no. 3 (1940): 519. In 1937, Beyer strategized with Mennonite denominational leaders about how to improve their reputation in Nazi Germany. “Aus der Unterredung Beyer-Regehr (Danzig),” October 4, 1937, Vereinigung Collection, folder: Briefw. 1937 Jul-Dez, Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany (hereafter MFS). Beyer’s interlocutor may have been Ernst Regehr, elder of the Rosenort Mennonite congregation, who had joined the Nazi Party on June 1, 1931. According to “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 85,” September 16, 1941, in Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941, ed. Mallmann, Angrick, Matthäus, and Cüppers, 483, Beyer spoke to ethnic Germans in Zhytomyr. He arrived with Einsatzgruppe C in Chortitza by the end of September 1941. Karl Roth, “Heydrichs Professor: Historiographie des ‘Volkstums’ und der Massenvernichtungen,” in Geschichtsschreibung als Legitimationswissenschaft, 1918-1945, ed. Peter Schöttler (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1997), 291-294.

5 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 85,” September 16, 1941, 468-469.

6 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 81,” September 12, 1941, 451.

7 Ibid., 455.

8 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 80,” September 11, 1941, in Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941, ed. Mallmann, Angrick, Matthäus, and Cüppers, 444.

9 Jeffrey Burds, “Turncoats, Traitors, and Provocateurs”: Communist Collaborators, the German Occupation, and Stalin’s NKVD, 1941–1943,” East European Politics & Societies and Cultures 32, no. 3 (2018): 606-638.

10 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 88,” September 19, 1941, in Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941, ed. Mallmann, Angrick, Matthäus, and Cüppers, 497-498.

11 Doris Bergen, “The Nazi Concept of ‘Volksdeutsche’ and the Exacerbation of Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, 1939-45,” Journal of Contemporary History 29 (1994): 569-582.

12 David Löwen to Johann Epp, April 24, 1944, Einwandererzentralstelle Collection, A33420-EWZ50-GO62/2902-2954, Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo, ON, Canada (this file hereafter cited as MAO).

13 Friedrich Werner to Hermann Behrends, February 2, 1944, MAO.

14 “Handschriftliche Aufzeichnungen der volksdeutschen Angestellten (ehem. Lehrerin) Amalie Franziska Reimer, geb. am 3. Jan. 1911 (in Chortitza im Rayon Saporoshe),” ca. February 1944, MAO. It is possible that whoever typed Reimer’s handwritten account may have added the underlining, in which case its meaning would be different. Regardless, Reimer took pains to portray herself in this seven-page document as belonging to Chortitza’s Mennonite community, which she depicted positively in contrast to Judaism, communism, and the Soviet secret police.

15 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 86,” September 17, 1941, 484. Leading Mennonites exhibited antisemitism in correspondence with fellow denominational leaders. The district administrator of Chortitza, for example, praised the Nazi invasion for ending an era in which “Jews and Jew-lovers sat in our villages and played their evil games.” Quoted in Benjamin Unruh to Johann Epp, December 5, 1943, Vereinigung Collection, folder: 1943, MFS.

16 “Das Deutschtum im Raum von Kriwoj Rog, Saporoshje, Dnjepropetrowsk, im Gebiet Melitopol und im Gebiet Mariupol: Vorläufige Feststellungen, insbesondere über die Mennonitensiedlungen,” November 1, 1941, in Deutsche Besatzungsherrschaft in der UdSSR 1941-45: Dokumente der Einsatzgruppen in der Sowjetunion, ed. Jürgen Matthäus, Klaus-Michael Mallmann, Martin Cüppers, and Andrej Angrick (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2013), 221-226, here 223. This report’s information on Mennonites in areas under Einsatzgruppe C’s jurisdiction had been collected from September 19 to 23; information on Mennonites in the area under Einsatzgruppe D’s jurisdiction had been collected from October 17 to 24.

17 Heinrich Himmler, Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 1999), 224-225.

18 On Götz’s anticipated postwar role in resettling Germans from overseas, see “Ratsherrn Karl Götz, Stuttgart,” September 19, 1941, A3343 SSO, roll 21A (Karl Götz 11.3.03), National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, USA. One version of this plan envisioned bringing 200,000 settlers from overseas. These were to join nearly two million total settlers intended for Eastern Europe, where one major new province called Gotengau would be erected in a region known for its historic Mennonite populations: “the Dnieper Bend, Taurida, and the Crimea.” “Stellungnahme und Gedanken von Dr. Erhard Wetzel zum Generalplan Ost des Reichsführers SS,” April 27, 1942, in Vom Generalplan Ost zum Generalsiedlungsplan, ed. Czeslaw Madajczyk (Munich: Saur, 1994), 51-52. Nazi planers contemplated a special role for South American migrants in their hypothetical Gotengau: “Here we could perhaps trade [with South American countries] to get back the South America Germans, especially the Germans from southern Brazil, [in exchange for Polish settlers whom the Nazis wanted to remove from Europe] and locate them in the new settlement areas, possibly in Taurida and the Crimea as well as the Dnieper Bend.” Ibid., 63.

19 Götz wrote to the Mennonite leader Benjamin Unruh on October 24, 1941 with the goal of facilitating a meeting between Unruh and Himmler. Meir Buchsweiler, Volksdeutsche in der Ukraine am Vorabend und Beginn des Zweiten Weltkriegs—Ein Fall Doppelter Loyalität? (Gerlingen: Bleicher Verlag, 1984), 321. On Götz and his relationship to Mennonites, see Benjamin W. Goossen, “‘A Small World Power’: How the Third Reich Viewed Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 75, no. 2 (2018): 173–206.

20 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 135,” November 19, 1941, in Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941, ed. Mallmann, Angrick, Matthäus, and Cüppers, 818. EK 6’s rate of murder accelerated as compared to the period from September 14 to October 4, during which it reported killing 106 political functionaries, 48 saboteurs and plunderers, and 205 Jews. Mallmann, Angrick, Matthäus, and Cüppers, ed., Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941, 673, 777.

21 Ernst Biberstein’s testimony from June 29, 1947 at the Einsatzgruppen Trial in Nuremberg is quoted in Buchsweiler, Volksdeutsche in der Ukraine, 377. Records of ethnic German evacuees processed by the Einwandererzentralstelle in 1944 offer one avenue for identifying Mennonites previously recruited by the Einsatzgruppen. For instance, the file of one Chortitza colony resident reports that he joined an “Einsatzkommando” on November 11, 1941 while EK 6 was still in the Dnieper Bend, although he appears to have remained in Zaporizhzhia with the SiPo and SD until October 1943. Jakob Ediger, “Einbürgerungsantrag,” April 13, 1944, Einwandererzentralstelle Collection, A3342-EWZ50-B034/1214-232, Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo, ON, Canada.

22 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 135,” November 19, 1941, 818. This complaint applied generally to the Dnieper Bend region, where Mennonites were only a minority of the population, but the pattern also held for Mennonites. In one case, a Mennonite in Zaporizhzhia who had reportedly “betrayed several ethnic Germans” to the Soviets died of illness before he could be tried by Nazi authorities. Benjamin Unruh to Vereinigung and Verband, October 18, 1943, Vereinigung Collection, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. In a postwar interview, Heinrich Wiebe (who had served as the mayor of Nazi-occupied Zaporizhzhia) discussed another case: women in Chortitza had denounced a fellow Mennonite named Niebuhr for betraying their husbands to the Soviet secret police. Niebuhr avoided punishment by joining the Gestapo. Wiebe added: “Among our Mennonites, very many unfortunately joined the Gestapo. Many.” Heinrich Wiebe, Interview, ca. 1950s, Cornelius Krahn Interviews, tape 5, side B and tape 6, side A, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.

23 “Amalie Reimer worked in various capacities as a trusted agent for the Security Police and SD office that I headed in Dnepropetrovsk.” Hermann Ling to Chef der SiPo and des SD, EWZ, Lager Litzmannstadt, March 24, 1944, MAO. Ling had previously been an officer with Einsatzkommando 5 of Einsatzgruppe C. While in Dnepropetrovsk, Ling oversaw the enslavement of thousands of Ukraine’s remaining Jews. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower, eds., The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 43, 205. Reimer may have arrived in Dnepropetrovsk prior to the massacre of around 15,000 Jews in that city by mid-October of 1941. 5,000 Jews reportedly remained alive in Dnepropetrovsk as of October 19. Mallmann, Angrick, Matthäus, and Cüppers, ed., Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941, 821.

24 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 135,” November 19, 1941, 818.

25 “EK 6 decided against shooting these Jews in the overriding interest of continuing the [agricultural] work, being satisfied with liquidating the Jewish leadership.” “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 81,” September 12, 1941, 452.

26 Buchsweiler, Volksdeutsche in der Ukraine, 381, gives the number 2,500 for October 1941. On their ghettoization and murder, see Danielle Rozenberg, Enquête sur la Shoah par balles, vol. 1 (Paris: Hermann, 2016), 65-119. Most of Stalindorf’s able-bodied Jews were sent in April 1942 to work on the Dnepropetrovsk- Zaporizhzhia highway. Martin Dean, Collaboration in the Holocaust: Crimes of the Local Police in Belorussia and Ukraine, 1941-44 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 83. Stalindorf’s remaining Jews were killed in May 1942. Wila Orbach, “The Destruction of the Jews in the Nazi-Occupied Territories of the USSR,” Soviet Jewish Affairs 6, no. 2 (1976): 44. Further research is required regarding Mennonites’ relationship to the killings. Viktor Klets, “Caught between Two Poles: Ukrainian Mennonites and the Trauma of the Second World War,” in Minority Report: Mennonite Identities in Imperial Russia and Soviet Ukraine Reconsidered, 1789-1945, ed. Leonard Friesen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 304. Some empty Jewish homes were given to Mennonites, and Stalindorf was renamed Friesendorf after their “Frisian” heritage. See “Dorfbericht: Friesendorf,” July 7, 1942, R 6/623, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany (hereafter BArch).

27 See Aileen Friesen, “Khortytsya/Zaporizhzhia under Occupation: A Portrait,” in European Mennonites and the Holocaust, ed. Jantzen and Thiesen, 229-249; Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 530-535.

28 Reimer had been trying to leave the camp and gain new employment. An SS-Brigadeführer had already written on her behalf to the top Nazi in Reichsgau Sudetenland, noting that she “had made notable contributions to the German cause.” Rudolf Creutz to Konrad Henlein, March 15, 1944, MAO. For Johann Epp’s initial evaluation of Reimer’s citizenship application, see Amalie Reimer, “Einbürgerungsantrag,” March 19, 1944, MAO. Epp’s title at this time was “Volkstumssachverständiger bei der Einwandererzentralstelle-Kommission XXVIII.” Epp had already rejected other evacuees’ applications on similar grounds. Benjamin Unruh to Vereinigung, January 7, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

29 Ling to Lager Litzmannstadt, March 24, 1944. Ling had found a position for Reimer at the Potulice concentration camp, where she would have worked with kidnapped children of anti-German partisans from the Soviet Union. Regarding Johann Epp’s charges against Reimer, Ling added: “One must know the context of the ethnic Germans from Zaporizhzhia to know that there, Russian rule caused much internal malice.”

30 Accusations by Luise Schmidt, Anna Cornies, and Johann Rempel are contained in K. Löwen to Johann Epp, March 31, 1944, MAO; Johann Epp, “Meine Stellungnahme zum Lebenslauf der Amalie Reimer,” April 24, 1944, MAO; David Löwen to Johann Epp, April 24, 1944. See also Rudolf Rempel, “Vernehmungsniederschrift,” April 24, 1944, MAO.

31 Regierungsrat to Niedenführ, April 4, 1945, MAO. This process took over a year to resolve. Already by mid-1944, however, the accusations against Reimer resulted in the revocation of her employment offer at the Potulice concentration camp. Authorities who weighed the evidence for and against Reimer considered the Mennonites who denounced her to be “Russia German evacuees, who not only have known her for years, but who also must be seen as leading people within Germandom.” Schapmeier to Ehrlich, June 10, 1944, MAO.

32 Instead of working at the Potulice concentration camp, Reimer had received employment in a factory through the help of a former EK 6 officer, Matthias Graf, and she later testified (under her middle name, Franziska) on his behalf at Nuremberg. See Erika Weidemann, “Identity and Survival: The Post-World War II Immigration of Chortitza Mennonites,” in European Mennonites and the Holocaust, ed. Jantzen and Thiesen, 269-289. The racial expert Hans Beyer also remained in contact with Mennonites after his service with Einsatzgruppe C. See Hans Beyer to Christian Neff, May 31, 1944, Nachlaß Christian Neff, folder: Briefwechsel 1944, MFS; Benjamin Unruh to Vereinigung, November 21, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

33 Reimer and her son left for Canada on November 4, 1948, sponsored by A. Reimer of Lockwood, Saskatchewan. Hermann Schirmacher, Hans Peter Wiebe, and Thomas Schirmacher, eds., “MCC Auswanderungslisten nach 1945: The Mennonite Central Committee Post-World War II Refugee List, 1945-1952,” 2020, Mennonite Genealogical Resources, online.

Reevaluating the Relationship Between Anabaptism and Evangelicalism

Regina Wenger

In Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, she argues that white evangelical support for Donald Trump was not an aberration, but the culmination of more than fifty years of evangelicalism’s increasing affinity for militant masculinity. The recent riot and invasion of the US Capitol by persons displaying Christian nationalist slogans adds a tragic concreteness to Du Mez’s claims.1 While Du Mez does not explicitly discuss Anabaptism in her narrative, she presents a definition of evangelicalism in America behind Trump’s ascendency that I believe needs to be wrestled with in historical discussions about Anabaptism’s relationship with evangelicalism after World War II.

Du Mez offers a cultural definition of white evangelicalism specifically tied to consumption. A white evangelical consumer culture exploded in the postwar period with books and resources (e.g. Focus on the Family, Mars Hill Church), Christian Contemporary Music (CCM), and films like the God’s Not Dead series. “Rather than seeking to distinguish between ‘real’ from ‘supposed’ evangelicals,” Du Mez contends, “…it is much more useful to think in terms of the degree to which individuals participate in this evangelical culture of consumption.”2

Du Mez’s definition of evangelicalism runs counter to those of a more theological and doctrinal nature offered by people such as David Bebbington and Thomas Kidd.3 The scholarly conversations about how to best to characterize modern evangelicalism open a Pandora’s Box too extensive to discuss here. Nonetheless, Du Mez’s conceptualization of evangelicalism as participation in a broadly shared Christian consumer culture represents a notable contribution to discussions on the topic.

One of the things that struck me in Du Mez’s description of the diffuse nature of evangelical consumer culture was her observation about its effect on her own Christian Reformed denomination. “My own upbringing in the Christian Reformed Church, a small denomination founded by Dutch immigrants, is a case in point,” she states. “For generations, members defined themselves against American Christianity, but due to the onslaught of evangelical popular culture, large swaths of the denomination are now functionally evangelical in terms of affinity and belief. Denominational boundaries are easily breached by the flow of religious merchandizing.”4

Du Mez’s observation mirrors my own experience as a pastor and lifelong member of various congregations within Mennonite Church USA. Out of both personal and scholarly experience, I think that the pervasiveness of evangelical consumer culture, and its abilities to transgress denominational boundaries, present an intriguing angle from which to evaluate the relationship between evangelicalism and Anabaptism.

Two books, written decades apart, display two distinct approaches for understanding the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelicalism. The first, Norman Kraus’ Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (1979), generally views the two traditions in tension rather than compatible.5 Conversely, Jared Burkholder and David Cramer’s The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (2012) sees the traditions more as able conversation partners.6Additionally, as my Anabaptist Historians colleague Devin Manzullo-Thomas pointed out, there has been an “Anabaptist Turn in Recent American Evangelical Historiography.”7

What Du Mez’s definition of evangelicalism and her personal aside reveal is a new paradigm for historically interrogating the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelicalism. Have congregations and persons in the Anabaptist tradition become “functionally evangelical”? If so, how and when? For example, would a historical examination of purchasing patterns of Christian education materials in Anabaptist-related congregations shed light on this phenomenon?

One of the reasons I think this relationship needs reevaluation—utilizing Du Mez’s approach—is the extent to which she ties evangelicalism to militancy and Christian nationalism. Our post-2016 conversations about the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelicalism need to more readily grapple with Anabaptism’s positions on peace and nonviolence in conjunction with the rising militancy in postwar evangelicalism that Du Mez charts. The power and pervasiveness of evangelical consumer culture can overwhelm efforts from both the pulpit and denominational publishers.8

I expect new explorations of the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelicalism using Du Mez’s insights would not reveal a doctrinal declination of the former in its interactions with the latter; in that assessment I concur with Burkholder and Cramer.9 However, I also suspect, particularly related to examining matters of war and peace, that the incompatibility that Kraus sees between the two traditions will come to the fore as well.10 And it is because, as these and other texts illustrate, postwar evangelicalism has interacted with Anabaptism in various and complex ways that Du Mez’s culture of consumption definition of evangelicalism can offer insight into histories of contemporary Anabaptism. It is an exploration in which I invite the readers and contributors of Anabaptist Historians to join me in undertaking.


1. “…the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such…” Kristen Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York: Liveright, 2020), 3. For a recent and more thorough explanation of Christian nationalism, see: Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

2. Du Mez, 8.

3. Bebbington lays out his influential “quadrilateral” description of evangelicalism as characterized by belief in conversion, activism, cruci-centrism, and biblicism in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730 to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1989). Kidd’s most recent and developed definition of evangelicalism may be found in Who Is an Evangelical?: A History of a Movement in Crisis (New Haven, Yale, 2019).

4. Du Mez, 7-8.

5. Norman Kraus, ed., Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979), reprints are available from Wipf and Stock. In Kraus’ opening chapter, he described an early 1970s “shift in public opinion” regarding evangelicalism, “…heralded by the ‘Honor America’ celebration on July Fourth, 1970, when Billy Graham was featured as the star speaker along with Bob Hope and John Wayne…” Kraus, “What is Evangelicalism?” in Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 16-17.

6. Jared S. Burkholder and David C. Cramer, “Introduction,” in Jared S. Burkholder and David C. Cramer, eds., The Activist Impulse: The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 5.

7. Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas, “The Not-So-Quiet in the Land: The Anabaptist Turn in Recent American Evangelical Historiography,” The Conrad Grebel Review, 33, no. 3 (Fall 2015): 359-71.

8. Du Mez, 8.

9. Burkholder and Cramer, 3.

10. In addition, to Kraus, Ted Grimsrud critiques what he sees as an assumption in Burkholder and Cramer that does not strongly consider “the problem of evangelical Christianity (and, actually, Christianity in general) actually tending to influence people to be more violent, not less violent.” Ted Grimsrud, “Anabaptist Evangelicalism?” Thinking Pacifism, blog, July 8, 2012. See also: Ted Grimsrud, “The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism,” The Conrad Grebel Review 31, no. 3 (Fall 2013).

Edgar Metzler’s “Let’s Talk About Extremism” (1968).

Let’s Talk About Extremism

Edgar Metzler

Originally published as Edgar Metzler, Let’s Talk About Extremism. Focal Pamphlet Series No. 12 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1968).

© 2021 by Edgar J. Metzler. All Rights Reserved. Introduction © 2021 by Maxwell Kennel.

Edited by Maxwell Kennel

Editorial Introduction

In 1968 a Mennonite pastor and peace worker named Edgar Metzler published a short booklet in the popular “Focal Pamphlet” series published by Herald Press – a series that includes other more widely read works by Mennonite historians and theologians like Harold S. Bender and J. Lawrence Burkholder. The brief preface on the inside cover gives some indication of its purpose and audience in the context of the American Mennonite experience during the late 1960s.

This pamphlet is prepared to stimulate the Christian’s peace testimony. Christians need constantly to return to the Bible to discover the message of the gospel. This message must be translated into living terms by every generation. The S. F. Coffman Peace Lectures are sponsored by the Committee on Peace and Social Concerns of the Mennonite Church. They are financed by an individual who has an interest in the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it relates to the social needs and the international tensions of the world in which we live.

Metzler’s text is situated amidst the international tensions alluded to above, particularly racial tensions and violence in the United States during the Vietnam War era. The pamphlet is titled Let’s Talk About Extremism, but what the author means by the term “extremism” calls for explanation, some of which the author provides in the first section of the text below.

Although other pamphlets in the series were more widely read, Let’s Talk About Extremism has only been cited a few times since it was published – most recently in a survey of definitions of radicalism and extremism.1 The lack of scholarly or public engagement with the text in the years since it was published is a problem that I hope to remedy in this edition.

In short, the argument of the pamphlet is that how we think about the relationship between extreme or opposed positions – whether they are political, religious, social, or a combination of all three – matters deeply. For Metzler, ways of thinking and knowing, or what scholars call “epistemologies,” are just as important for the Christian peace witness as more visible manifestations of violence like killing or war. Whereas Metzler refers to “extremism,” today we tend to refer to the problems he addresses by using the term “polarization.” In response to these problems, Metzler calls his readers to consider how hard oppositions between liberals and conservatives are clarified when we think about not only what we think, but also how we think, and how we express what we think.

But rather than staying within the bounds of the liberal-conservative opposition, Metzler enjoins his readers to reframe their vision of extreme positions by measuring ways of thinking against a different standard, asking: “Is this way of thinking closed or open?” Drawing attention to the presence of closed-mindedness at all points on the political spectrum (a pattern recently explored by Francois Cusset), Metzler advocates for openness. Against racist, nationalist, and religious prejudices, Metzler values a kind of open-mindedness that is able to listen to the other, take in new information, and charitably engage with “extreme” perspectives. By contrast, the closed mind is reactive, reliant on questionable second-hand sources, and unable to be moved. This is not to say, however, that Metzler advocates for a kind of passive middle way that sits between extremes and attempts to remain neutral on matters of justice. Rather, Metzler helps his readers to avoid the pitfalls of both polarization and neutrality.

One further benefit of how Metzler frames his argument for openness is that he leaves open the question of how this openness is authorized or validated. For Metzler himself, it is the peaceful figure of Jesus Christ who is the model for a more open epistemology. But Metzler leaves open the possibility of taking on his perspective without confessing Christian faith. Metzler’s resistance to oversimplification, selectivity, black and white thinking, appeals to fear, authoritarianism, and so forth, are critical values that can resonate with the priorities of Christians and religious ‘nones,’ secular and confessional Mennonites, and anyone who is concerned with the problems of our shared world. For this reason, perhaps anachronistically, I would characterize Metzler’s work as “postsecular” – where “postsecular” names a way of thinking that challenges the claims to superiority made by both religions and secularities.

One final point that makes Metzler’s work important today is his critique of conspiratorial thinking. His conversation with an alienated congregation member, as described in the final pages of the pamphlet, is a model for how to openly and critically engage with those who are given to conspiratorial thinking, while seeing through the content of such arguments to the narratives of rejection and victimhood that lie beneath. In a time when conspiracy theories are becoming more influential, concomitant with a decline in public trust and trust in expertise, I think it is essential to consider Metzler’s reminder that beneath the “extreme” positions of those who believe in conspiracy theories is often a common human desire to be heard and recognized. Again, this is not to say that Metzler’s work is a resource for those who would, in the name of ‘free speech,’ give an open platform for hate (for example, the conspiracism and violence of far-right groups). Instead, his concluding comments point to the deeper social roots of present political problems, and provide practical ways of challenging violent ways of thinking.

Editorial Note

In the digitized edition below I have made very few editorial interventions. I have left the original text entirely unchanged. My only additions are the footnoted references for the quotations provided by Metzler and some references to resources. Paragraph breaks, headings, and numbering have been preserved, along with older usage (ex. ‘catalog’). References to original page numbers appear in square brackets.

I am especially grateful to Edgar Metzler and his son Michael Metzler for their permission to publish this online edition of the pamphlet, and I want to acknowledge not only their support but also their conviction that this historical document still has much to teach contemporary readers.

Original Author Note

“Edgar Metzler was born in Masontown, Pennsylvania, where his father, A. J. Metzler, served as pastor for a number of years. He was graduated from Eastern Mennonite High School, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and received his BA and BD degrees from Goshen College and Goshen College Biblical Seminary, Goshen, Indiana. The latter degree was received in 1961. During 1966-67 he studied at the Graduate School of International Affairs at American University, Washington, D.C. Before he became pastor he served for two years as associate executive secretary on the National Service Board for Religious Objectors, Washington, D.C. He was ordained to the ministry in 1957 when he became pastor of the First Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ontario. where he served until 1962. He was Executive Secretary of the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section from 1962-66. In 1967 he with his family joined the United States Peace Corps as Program Officer in Nepal. He has served on the Peace Problems Committee, later the Committee on Peace and Social Concerns of Mennonite General Conference. He has written curriculum for Uniform Sunday School Lessons and articles for various publications in the areas of peace and social concern.” 2

Introduction

Have you ever called anyone an extremist? Or have you thought that someone was one? What did you mean? Likely you meant that he had certain ideas, patterns of thought, styles of expressing and discussing ideas, or actions which you considered to be unreasonable or irresponsible.

But that’s your judgment. He may think the same of your ideas and the way you support and express them. Extremism is thus not a very useful term. It is vague and difficult to define precisely. It is relative. One man’s extremism is another man’s moderation. Nevertheless, the term is in common use in our society. The term usually appears in the discussion of political and social policy and programs. In church circles the discussion may be intertwined or overlaid with religious and doctrinal issues.

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Peppernuts, Theme and Variations

A number of Facebook friends graciously shared photos of their peppernut-making and peppernuts when I asked for photos this week. Thank you all for helping to demonstrate the diversity of this delicacy!

To me, Christmas has well and truly arrived when the peppernuts are made. Though both my maternal and paternal lines come from a Swiss-German Mennonite background, my dad began pastoring a General Conference Mennonite church when I was a young girl, which meant that my understanding of “Mennonite food” wasn’t Shoo-fly pie and fastnacht but pluma moos and peppernuts. No fewer than three varieties of peppernuts graced the cookie table at our Christmas Eve service, some small and spicy, others slightly larger with a mild molasses flavor. I loved them all. 

As I prepared to make peppernuts this year, I became curious about their origins. I had always heard that they were closely associated with Mennonites (even Wikipedia says so!). But was that true? Where did this tradition come from? To try to discover the origins I did a quick survey of our cookbook collection at the Menno Simons Historical Library and struck gold when I found the two-volume Mennonite Foods & Folkways from South Russia by Norma Jost Voth. When I saw that it had a nearly 40 page chapter dedicated solely to “Christmas Peppernuts”, I knew I was in the right place! 

I learned that peppernuts or similar cookies, “are made in most Scandinavian countries at Christmas. Pfeffernüsse are also made in northern Germany. However, the older recipes from the Russian Mennonite kitchens more closely resemble the Dutch or Scandinavian pepernoot or pebernødder cookie than the German Pfeffernüsse.”1 Voth also writes that “Peppernuts have been part of Russian Mennonite baking traditions for several centuries.” But “Whether or not this custom came from the Mennonites from Holland to the Vistula Delta in the 1500s has not been established.”2

Everyone I speak to about peppernuts mentions that each family they know who make them has a unique recipe or method for “their” type of peppernut. The recipes have all been tweaked as they have been passed down through families and across years and borders. And it continues on into the next generation! Earlier this month I was scanning the Nov. 19 issue of the Goshen College Record when a line in “The GC pandemic logbooks” caught my eye. Claire Franz writes: 

“Made pfeffernusse today with Kristin. Even though we’re the only two Russian Mennonites in the house, we still managed to disagree about everything in the recipe. Ground anise or whole anise seeds? Chill the dough in the fridge or the freezer?”3

For her chapter, Voth collected over 33 recipes hailing from at least six different countries, though I’m sure the true number of peppernut varieties is many times more. The basic recipe is made from butter or shortening, sugar, flour, leavening like baking powder or soda, molasses or a similar syrup, and spices. The dough is chilled then rolled into logs and cut into coin sized rounds. The recipe variations in Voth’s volume included ingredients like lard, eggs, Karo syrup, watermelon syrup, candied peel, peppermint, anise seed, nutmeg, walnuts, almonds, honey, buttermilk, whipping cream, sour cream, cherries, pineapple, and even gumdrops, each adding a different flavor to the iterations (though I want to stress that no one recipe contained all of these ingredients).4

The more I read about these little spice cookies, the more I am convinced that folklore is a secret ingredient. The stories about peppernuts Voth captured in her volume were as delicious as the recipes. Some folks remember peppernuts being given by grandmothers to their grandkids to keep them quiet in church.5 Their small size also meant that they were perfect to fill the pockets of children “on their way to school or to do the chores.”6 Hildred Schroeder Wiebe recalls a tale her grandmother told of men throwing peppernuts to wolves to ward them off as they made their way by horse and sleigh into town. And there are a number of stories in Voth’s volume that describe hard Christmases where no treats can be expected, only to be surprised at the last minute by mothers or community members scraping together the necessary ingredients for a batch of peppernuts.7 Passing down the tales seems just as important as passing down the ingredients list. 

Voth writes that as she compiled this chapter, “the testers and tasters came to these conclusions: The best peppernuts are crisp and very spicy. Anise is the most popular flavor. Pepper enhances the other spice flavors. The plain, traditional peppernut is still very good. This tradition will continue!”8 Traditional foods like peppernuts connect us in a very tangible way to the experiences of those who came before, and are a tasty way to pass down the past. May we all find ways to continue these traditions in this very untraditional year.

1. Voth, Norma Jost. 1994. Mennonite foods & folkways from South Russia. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 366.

2. Ibid., 365.

3. Franz, Claire. “The GC Pandemic Logbooks.” The Record , November 19, 2020.

4. Voth, Norma Jost. 1994. Mennonite foods & folkways from South Russia. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 372-402

5. Klassen, Bev. “Pfeffernuesse (Peppernuts).” Web log. Mennonite Girls Can Cook (blog), November 6, 2014. http://www.mennonitegirlscancook.ca/2014/11/pfeffernuesse-peppernuts.html.

6. Voth, Norma Jost. 1994. Mennonite foods & folkways from South Russia. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 364.

7. Ibid., 365.

8. Ibid., 366.